Wednesday, April 30, 2008

North Korea: A Day in the Life (documentary short from the Netherlands)

North Korea: A Day in the Life (“Noord-Korea: Een dag uit het leven”), directed by Pieter Fleury (2004, the Netherlands, 48 min, distributor Total Film; Production by Key Monkey) gives us a “hands-on” up-close look at a day in the life of a North Korean family living in a typical box apartment in a concrete, ex-Soviet Pyongyang high rise. The film shows a shocking, robot-like conformity along with a pretense of sing-song cheeriness. There is a clothing factory, and the workers each have a quota per day, and have to catch up when there is a power outage. There are English classes for adults, and children. There is a morals class where the leader give up his boots and wears wet sneakers just like “the proles.” The family eats with chopsticks, and the children are urged not to waste food (especially short-supply vegetables like kimchi). Everywhere, including the immaculate subways, looms the image of secular cult god Kim Jong Il. There is actually a music lesson, with instruments like the choptae and kayagum.

The film demonstrates how extreme Communist psychology works. This is more or less a continuation of the Mao cultural revolution. The cities get emptied out and everyone toils in the countryside. Everyone is forced to share in toil “equally” so that everyone is taken care of. That is the philosophy, but of course the moral umbrage doesn’t apply to Kim Jong Il himself, as it did not apply to Chairman Mao. There is one place where the Internet is mentioned, and explained in English.

The director, in an interview, remarks that his motivation for the film was a bit like that of filming a day in the life of the Beatles. The extras suggest that a little bit of market economy, such as Farmers Market, is developing. But people are "watched" all the time, everywhere they go. People manage to develop some individuality without the political right to individual freedom and differential expression as we would experience it.

The worst movie that I ever saw was “The Flower Girl” from North Korea, and shown at the Washington Square Methodist Church in Greenwich Village one night in the fall of 1974. It was long and tiresome, as children struggle over and over to find medicine for their mother. It was collective consciousness in the extreme.

Picture: actually, Huntley Meadows near Alexandria, VA

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

"In the Name of God" from Pakistan may be the most critical look at radical Islam yet, from Islam itself

"In the Name of God" (“Khuda ke liye”), directed by Shoaib Monsoon, is an epic film from Pakistan, and is a centerpiece of FilmfestDC. Tonight (April 29) it sold out at Regal Cinemas in Chinatown in Washington in a large auditorium. The director spoke briefly, about how moderate Muslims take the heat for what radical Islam has done. It was a big success at the Cairo film festival.

The film is long and grand, shot in full 2.35:1. It is mostly in Urdu (with subtitles) and English. Normally, American film studios simulate the Islamic world in Morocco or sometimes Mexico; but this film was made on location, much of it in and around Lahore, and some in the border tribal areas. The Pakistan and Afghanistan scenes were shot in sepia (in a manner reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s Mexican scenes in “Traffic”), where as the scenes in London and Chicago are shot in neutral color. The Afghanistan battle scene, from the point of view of Al Qaeda or Taliban fighters, is quite harrowing. There were some mixing problems with the Pakistan scenes, making the voices loud and shrill, and the film was accidentally cropped briefly in a couple of scenes.

The story separates the members of a family and then finally brings them back together, with world politics driving the lives of likeable people. Sarmad (Fawhad Khan) and Mansoor (Shaan) are brothers both with promising skills in music. In an early scene, police break up a Y2K celebration. Mansoor moves to Chicago to go to college, studying music (and the Pakistani keyboard, percussion and voice “folk” music is quite interesting) and meets a young woman who struggles to play Bach on unaccompanied cello. Sarmad stays behind and falls under the influence of a radical mullah who brainwashes him into giving up music as anti-Islam. Their uncle in London resents his daughter Maryam’s (Iman Ali) plans to marry a “white” American Dave (Alex Edwards), although many of the Muslims (especially Sarmad) are every bit as “Caucasian” and could easily pass as Brits themselves. He goes into rants about the right of a father to force his daughter to marry within Islam. He sends his daughter to Pakistan for a forced arranged marriage with Sarmad. Ironically, Sarmad himself is very gentle and does not want to force himself on her. But tribal mullahs force him to give them a child, and harden him to “jihad”. In the meantime, Mansoor is sitting in his apartment when he clicks on to TV and suddenly discovers 9/11 in progress. Soon the cops are hauling him away for a “rendition” as a suspected terrorist. There is some bizarre circumstantial evidence against him (including a tic-tac transparency containing an anagram of “9-11”). There is a horrifying lesson here in how it is easy to “look guilty” and become a target of government.

The interrogation scenes here are more horrifying than those in New Line’s “Rendition.” I thought, Jake Gyllenhaal (“pie charts”) is too nice a guy to have been believable in this movie. Instead, there is an X-files “cigarette smoking man” and Mansoor is treated to the worst imaginable bodily humiliations.

In the mean time Dave and some British lawyers have managed to get Maryam back to Lahore for a court proceeding that will turn in to a trial that turns all of the precepts of radical Islam into a sea of contradictions (even relative to the scriptures in the Koran). At one point, there is a question as to whether Islam forbids music, and the answer has something to do with King David in the Old Testament. The film has, however, demonstrated how radical Islam has tried to set up a religious “utopia” that is self-sustaining with a psychological trick: make men take care of women and perform with women by promising them that they “own” them and own the families they produce. This sort of compulsory male ego support seems to make permanent marital sexuality (and mandatory procreation as a kind of vicarious immortality) work in their world, and, it seems, it only falls apart and leads to violence (in the extreme) when “foreign occupiers” interfere. Nevertheless, there seems to be no conceivable way to rationalize suicide with this kind of thinking, even in religious terms; that seems to take place as a defense to the shame that results when their scheme is interfered with. Shame is normally the most intolerable of emotions.

Like "The Yacoubian Building" (from Egypt) this film shows the artistic and dramatic work that Muslim culture is capable of producing, at least in film. Although slower paced than most western films, it gives considerable weight to the view that radical Islam does not represent the Muslim world as a whole.

I do hope a North American distributor will pick this up. Of course, a theatrical run will create controversy, much more than anything from Michael Moore.

It would need some digital re-mixing to fix some technical problems.

Maybe Lions Gate will get interested in this film.

This film should not be confused with Universal’s “In the Name of the Father” (1993) about a coerced IRA confession.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Night James Brown Saved Boston (Director's Cut) at FilmfestDC

The Night James Brown Saved Boston, directed by David Leaf (74 min), showed this weekend at Filmfest DC. The film will appear on DVD in August 2008 from Shout! Factory, and was produced with the help of WGBH in Boston. That raises the question about a possible PBS showing later. There was a shorter PBS event before, and the DVD will contain most of the April 5m 1968 Boston Garden concert tape. The festival showing was a "Director's Cut."

Now, for a note about the history. African American rock musician David Brown put on the historic concert that night to divert Boston’s residents away from possible violence the night after the Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated. The City agreed reluctantly to pay him – enough – and to use the Boston Garden downtown. The city was afraid that rioting would disrupt swank businesses downtown, but was not concerned about possible destruction in the predominantly black Roxbury.

The film contains a lot of somewhat fuzzy black-and-white footage of the rock concert (“Baby baby ,,,”) with rather tinny mono sound. There is plenty of archival footage of the rioting in other cities like Chicago and Detroit, and most of all, Washington, which had more smoke from fires in the air at any time in modern history until 9/11. In Washington, the riot torn areas along upper 14th St and Cardozo have been gentrified rebuilt with expensive condominiums; the GLBT Reel Affirmations film festival is held largely at the Lincoln Theater in the area each fall. Guard and Reserve troops were called up to maintain order and almost martial law. Even in Basic Training, recruits were told they were on “red alert” to participate in urban “shows of force.” I recall, because I was told that.

The film also relives some other history, such as LBJ’s March 31 announcement that he would not run again.

Related: this link.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Band's Visit: a gentle encounter that transcends Middle East (and all other) politics

The Band’s Visit (“Bikur Ha-Tizmoret”) is a gentle film from Israel, and, as with the film in yesterday’s review, tries to bring people together in personal communication, making external collective political struggles extraneous. Still, the characters have to become real to each other, and need to have something to offer. You can’t take any real communication for granted. What we have in this film by Eran Kolirin from Sophie Dulac Productions is a local social experiment. The film already has major distribution by Sony Pictures Classics; otherwise it (as would “The Visitor”, yesterday) probably would have been included in the current FilmFestDC that has just started.

Here, the situation is that an eight-man police band from Egypt, intending to give an inaugural concert in an Arab Arts Center (apparently in Israel) takes a bus ride to the wrong and winds up wrong town, a small place with no hotels and only a bare coffee shop. So they have to make do with the locals, who take them in and let them spend the night and share meals with their families.

One of the men (Tawfiq, played by Sasson Gabai) was trying to compose a clarinet concerto, and plays a couple of melodies solo. He says he stopped when his wife got pregnant, as if family excludes individual creative activity. Later there is a conversation about “Arab classical music” and we do hear some snippets of it, as well as the “concert” (which includes voice and strings and some characteristic Arab music) in the closing credits. The slender and handsome Halid (Saleh Bakri) more or less becomes a central character with his bit of comedy and constant amorous ambiguity. In an early scene on the bus, we glimpse a bit of hairy leg in an odd shot, as the men are always dressed in the stuffy blue uniforms. (Hopefully it is winter here in the desert.) Halid starts to interact with Lea (I believe (Ahuva Keren) and Papi (a conspicuously hirsute Shlomi Avraham). They stumble around on a roller skating rink and then just sitting side-by-side. Both Halid and Papi, why talking about Papi’s potential “first experience,” seem ambiguous; they seem to have as much affection for each other as for her. Homosexuality is taboo in Muslim culture, but here it is so subtle as to just live as part of a human continuum; rules are made up to make people fit into larger social and political cultures, it seems; they become superfluous here.


Friday, April 25, 2008

The Visitor: A gentle parable for all faiths (review)

Overture Films and Participant have come up with a gentle parable about hospitality with “The Visitor”.

First, though, let’s deal with the music. Widower college professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) starts the movie with half-hearted piano lessons from visiting teachers. I remember those drop-rolls. His heart is not into practicing Bach. His wife had been a concert pianist, and excerpts from her recording of the Beethoven Walstein Sonata are sometimes played. The teacher suggests that he could sell his Baldwin piano to her if he is going to give this up.

The other music, African drum, taught to him by the Palestinian visitor Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), has a real beat, with some linear woodwind melodies on top. In one scene, Tarek, somewhat mistakenly, connects classical to “4 beat” time and says that drum beat music has just three. Actually, the rhythm is rather syncopated and sounds more like 6/4 (a favorite signature of Brahms). In the final scene, Vale has been transformed, playing the drums without thinking in the Broadway and Lafayette subway station, not needing the tips.

As for the story, first: the one weakness. It seems facile that Vale, teaching and living in Connecticut, has an unused apartment in Manhattan, given real estate prices. The rest rings true. With the loss of his wife, he has lost all motive to create. It wouldn’t be that way for everyone, but it is for him. He needs someone to care about. He is pressured by the Dean to go to New York to present a paper that he has co-authored, but it is the grad student who has written it. He seems to have little energy or industry.

It is the need of someone else that wakes him up. He quickly must become non-judgmental and be willing to take risks. He enters his apartment and finds two “foreigners” living in it. Later we will learn that had been placed there illegally in a real estate scam, and that they are illegal aliens. Tarek, the Palestinian, seems genuine enough, and Walter wants to help him, and lets him stay. Tarek teaches him drums. But soon Tarek gets busted by transit cops trying to lug his musical instruments through the gates, and he winds up at a detention center. Walter hires an immigration lawyer, himself apparently native born Muslim, who seems a bit indifferent.

Tarek says it is not fair, that he is a victim of international politics like everyone else. We have no way of knowing for sure. The authorities will not budge from enforcing the “rules” in place since 9/11. They make it worse, sneaking Tarek into deportation before the lawyer or his own mother from Michigan can help. What we are left with his how Walter is transformed by his own unquestioning kindness, by meeting the needs presented to him beyond his ability to choose, even beyond family in the usual sense.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Newseum: "I-Witness in 4D" and many other short films

The Newseum in Washington DC offers a variety of short films, enough to make a short documentary film festival.

The showpiece is “I-Witness News: 4D Time Travel Adventure,” about 18 minutes, shown continuously in the Annenberg Theater, from Cortina Films. The film itself is shown on a curved screen that approximates Todd AO, with an aspect ratio of about 2:1. There are mild “sensurround” effects, with chairs rocking, mist sprays, and even a rat tug on one’s trousers. (Visitors can sit further back and avoid the extra effects). But the content of the movie is what matters. It summarizes the history of the press, with focus on three episodes. First Isaiah Thomas reports on the opening shots of the Revolutionary War. Then, late in the 19th Century, Nellie Bly becomes the world’s first female undercover investigative reporter as she becomes an “MP” in an asylum (including straightjackets and rats). Then in the last segment a reporter provides live radio coverage from London during the Nazi bombings during the Battle of Britain in 1940. The episodes are connected with spherical bubbles with embedded images of other events that flow out of the screen to the viewer in 3D.

The second most important film is “The Big Picture” in “The Big Screen Theater” on level 5, on super wide screen (like Cinerama) with a run through of all the news since World War II through 9/11 and later. Leonardo DiCaprio appears in an Earth Day rally.

On Level 3 there is a thirty minute short “The Rise of TV News” which traces the history of television news from the time of ten minutes a day on Dumont in 1947 through Huntley-Brinkley in the 50s, through the political conventions, and the unrest of the 60s. In 1950, 9% of households had television, by 1960 it was almost 90%. During the 50s, the idea that television could cover news as well as entertain people (in contrast to radio) took hold. Television coverage exposed the military problems in Vietnam before print news did. Lyndon Johnson tried to get CBS to remove an overactive reporter from Vietnam, and it refused. Finally, Johnson said, “if I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost America.” The film has an appendix about the development of the Internet (from Arpanet) to its sudden release to the public in the early 1990s. By the late 90s, average people were interacting with the media outlets in such a way that major media companies took note of them, and in time bloggers became a major source of down-to-earth information about ordinary life. Bloggers are replacing journalists in the ability to provide “the first rough draft of history.” The enclosure for this film had too much light, and needs to be more sheltered.

On Level 5 there are numerous shorts. In one auditorium there are three inter-related films: “Sources” “Bias” and “Getting it Right”. The changing policies on anonymous sources are covered; it’s easy to talk off the record if you don’t have to account for what you say. “Bias” questions whether the media tend toward liberalism, although conservatives have their own niche. But “Getting It Right” covers the importance of journalistic fact-checking and accuracy. Mistakes happen rarely because of deception, but more often because of deadlines and the “rough draft” problem. NBC got the Florida projection wrong in the 2000 Election (“what the networks give, the networks take away”) and I remember hearing about the reversal while driving to an election party in Minneapolis, while stopped at a light. It’s funny how you remember things like that. The mishap with the Olympic Park incident in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta is covered, as is the erroneous reporting of a mine rescue and the heartbreak caused to families. Reporters also erroneously reported President Reagan as unhurt in the 1981 assassination attempt at first.

Another auditorium has “The Power of the Image”, and still another has “45 Words: The Story of the First Amendment” with a history of pamphleteering, the Bill of Rights, and the Sedition Acts. The 9/11 exhibit shows “Running Toward Danger,” as journalists cover the catastrophic events of that morning.

The Orientation film in the Hearst Auditorium downstairs is "News Wanted" (7 min) and provides a summary of the news business with many quick images.

Next door, there is a sports film theater, and documentary film theater. "The Pulitzer Pictures: Glimpses of the Past" (25 min) shows the work of the journalist photographer, starting with a fruit train journey. It proceeds to show historic photos from the past, such as the JFK assassination (Jack Ruby's shooting of Oswald on camera), the space program, and the controversial nude photo of victims in Vietnam.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed: a case for accepting intelligent design, not necessarily religious

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008) seems to have done very well in standard theaters this weekend as an “issue” film (from Premise Media, distributed by Rocky Mountain pictures, dir. Nathan Franowski, 90 min). The film seems to have been avoided by the art houses because of its superficially “right wing” message, which really is not the case.

Ben Stein, himself Jewish, interviews a few scientists to make the case for intelligent design as genuine science that does not presuppose a particular deity. In fact, we could have been designed by a previous alien civilization (in the spirit of Smallville) which in turn would have to be explained. He covers some brief scientific arguments on the chemical and mathematical nature of DNA, as a one dimensional helix that transforms to a three dimensional being, as leading to us in a progression beyond the normal operation of probability. He discusses Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” as not in itself explaining new species. He doesn’t go into the cosmology of the other ID film, “The Privileged Planet.”

For much of the film, the concern is for the sacking of (“expelling from”) careers for scientists (at the Smithsonian, at Iowa, at Baylor, various other schools) for publishing papers, even going through normal channels, that give credibility to the idea of “intelligent design” even without promoting it. The film takes the technique of building a metaphor with other historical episodes, especially those involving Hitler and Stalin and the Berlin Wall. In fact, the opening of the film feints being in black and white with a 40s style presentation.

The most disturbing idea in the film has to do with the idea that Nazism developed out of Darwinism. In fact, the philosopher who is closer is probably Herbert Spencer. He visits a museum in Germany that is the site of a “hospital” where the weak and sick were gassed and cremated. There is a chilling but brief scene where a “patient” is undressed and “examined.”

Then he presents an interview at Auschwitz-Birkenau as it looks today. I visited it in May 1999 and the scene looks as it did then, as I envision it in the opening chapter of my novel. The other person claims that Hitler’s philosophy in Mein Kampf and other writings came out of Darwinism, and that Hitler thought he was doing “good” by making the human race “better.” The interviewee says, however, that Hitler was “evil” even though the thought he knew “good.” But Hitler’s racial ideas had no conceivable “scientific” foundation, and his categorization of people had nothing to do with medical or physical or mental fitness in any objective sense by modern standards. So I’m not sure that the film is drawing the proper comparison.

The film also presented the idea of eugenics (as promoted by the Nazis) as connected to social Darwinism. The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh had a presentation on eugenics in early 2007.

The film here is trying to make a case that sometimes man needs an appeal to a higher calling and belief in a Being who can supersede man’s own determination of fitness or of what is “good”. The film suggests that there were other “Darwinian” moral theories in the 1920s and that even Planned Parenthood started then. Of course this gets into the right to life debate, not just about abortion or even stem cells, but also about the way the “costs” of caring for the less lucky should be shared: just by parents, by whole families, by society? Some of the practices of extreme capitalism in the workplace would seem to contradict this broader and more humane view of the value of human life. Emotional independence is said to be a good thing in personal relationships, but when carried to the point that people no longer "care" about others (besides of their own children) who would need to depend on them, perhaps can invite new rationalizations for new forms of political authoritarianism. That seems to be what the Pope was talking about a couple of times in homilies in his US visit last week.

There is a brief shot from "Inherit the Wind" and that fits.

A related PBS film is "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial," review link here.

Update: Oct 27, 2008

There is a new legal controversy over this film, since it shows 15 seconds of a song called "Imagine" which has brought copyright litigation from the family of John Lennon. The order in federal court in June 2008 denying an injunction to stop showing it is available here.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

"Where in the World is Osama bin Laden"? Morgan Spurlock looks fit, and is no longer supersized

"Where in the WORLD is Osama bin Laden"? Somebody could earn $25 million if they knew, perhaps? (Film website is this.)

Well, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock looks trimmed down, lean and mean from his “Super-Size Me” experiment (that almost killed him), although he may be a bit grayer (especially with beard) and a little bald on the pate. The movie opens with some amusing animation about becoming a Dad, as his wife has learned she is expecting before he starts his worldwide hunt. In fact, the very end of the film will show some autobiographical attachment parenting. An important theme is that parents all over the world should share the same desire for safe and stable political world that can accommodate religious and cultural differences.

He even takes some personal defense training, before his worldwide jaunt. He finds Egypt, supposedly a center for Muslim moderation, anything but a “democracy” with Mubarek in power for 25 years. The United States, he says, gets in bed with thugs when their on our side. We supported the Shah of Iran. We supported Osama and local freedom fighters in Afghanistan with the Soviet invasion. We supported Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war.

He moves on to the West Bank, and finds that the Palestinians say that they have no use for Al Qaeda, and that the struggle is over the expropriation of land, not about religion. He walks the walk in Jerusalem. At this point, he has presented “The Base” as a franchise out to kill you, like McDonalds (SuperSize).

He finds Saudi Arabia to be like another planet, and the film shows a lot of on location photography of the city streets, and of the shopping malls and of the veiled women in them. At this point, he is getting the feedback that, had the United States not invaded Iraq, Al Qaeda would have died in Afghanistan. It tends to colonize wherever there is dissent against western occupation. So Iraq proved to be a new nest.

He finally visits Afghanistan, Tora Bora (where he goes on an “Adventuring” hike down a canyon and is reassured there are no land mines), and then Pakistan, “the Land of the Pure.” Global jihad has become an “idea” like economic globalization, people say. Even if Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahri were killed, it would make no difference.

I’ve heard from a private source that OBL attended a “family meeting” in Karachi (the coastal city) in December 2000 about the time that the Supreme Court decided Bush v. Gore. It seems conceivable that he could have fled the country completely through the Indian Ocean at some point.

April 23: Correlated post on Graham Allison's article and on Ayman Al-Zawahri's tape, here.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Singing Revolution: How music helped liberate Estonia and the Baltics (review)

Perhaps I would please Donald Trump. Today I “negotiated” my way into a “private screening” of the “The Singing Revolution” set up by the Estonian Embassy. Actually, it was the opening showing in Washington of the documentary that chronicles the lost and regain of independence for Estonia, with a massive song celebration at an ampitheater near the Baltic Sea central to rallying the people.

The film is directed by James Trusty and his wife Maureen Castle Trusty. The director was present for a Q&A afterward. The film score is composed by John Kusiak, but the central piece seems to be a hymn that became the unofficial Estonian national anthem. The composers were listed in the rolling credits but don’t appear on the website as far as I can tell. Actually, Estonia’s best known symphonic composer, Eduard Tubin, is never mentioned, even though many of his best known works (like the 5th Symphony) were composed during Soviet rule.

In fact, this is about song, and group singing, often in unison, straightforward folk melodies with moderate rhythm.

But most of the film gives a rather detailed history of Estonia’s loss of independence before and during World War II, its status as a Soviet republic during the Cold War, and its role in 1991 in the events that eventually led to the implosion and breakup of the Soviet Union into separate sovereign states. The Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) were internal Soviet republics and not even theoretically sovereign countries like Poland and Romania. For a time, the Estonians were forced to "sing" the Soviet hymn from "Reds". In 1947, the snuck their own anthem back in under the censors, and the Soviets gradually increased the squeeze over the years; some activists lived in hiding.

Linda Hunt does the narration. The film characterizes Soviet repression under Stalinism as every bit as brutal as Hitler’s. The Nazis controlled Estonia for about three years, and people were carted away for sympathizing with the “other” side. There are a few black and white pictures of Soviet gulags intended to make “proles” of the intellectuals. Over the years, various activists, and sometimes their families, were whisked away. When Mikhail Gorbachev introduced “perestroika” and “glasnost” (with freer speech), the Soviet hold began to weaken. There is one interesting episode where the Estonians could talk about stripmining (shown) because it was just an “environmental” issue.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

"My Brother Is An Only Child" -- an oxymoron as the name of a "political" Italian film

My Brother Is An Only Child (“Mio fratello e figilio unico”), directed by Daniele Luchetti, adapted from a novel by Antonio Pennacchi, might seem to fit in to some earlier, much harder-hitting films about 60s and 70s “revolt” in Europe (“The Dreamers” by Bernado Bertolucci comes to mind), and, yes, as I said when I bought the ticket at a Landmark Theater, the title is an oxymoron.

Two brothers, impoverished and waiting for better housing as the movie opens, go through the sixties and seventies: the elder Manrico (Riccardo Scarmacio) joins the left wing Communist movement, whereas the younger Accio (Enrico Germano), has joined a seminary and is drawn to Fascism by a right wing priest. They both will hook up with Francesca (Diane Fleri) who will eventually become the “fall girl”. The early scenes focus on Accio, very young (he seems to be played by a different actor), whose brother wants to literally wash his silly ideas away.

The movie doesn’t really explore the “isms” that well. Accio sounds drawn to Fascism because it seems to satisfy visions of nationalism and virility. They talk about Il Duce (Mussolini) and how Italy would be better off now had the fascists won. (History texts like Brinton’s tell us that Mussolini taxed bachelors). Manrico lives in the union and worker movement, and his activism seems more a groupthink exercise than any personal ideology. Toward the end, both brothers realize how easy it is to be “selfish” and pay lip service to their ideologies, and eventually they have to come back together, despite living as if they were "only children" for much of their lives.

One could say that totalitarian ideologies seek to “rationalize” specific outcomes as related to social justice and wealth distribution, and how people “pay their dues,” without really requiring that much personal responsibility for why one believes the ideology. The film missed an opportunity to show how a demand for "fairness" or "justice" and making everybody "share burdens" can, when misapplied, encourage totalitarian political ideology.

The 1950 World Book Encyclopedia has an excellent entry on "government" with column-wise comparisons of Democracy, Communism, and Fascism.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Empty theaters? How well is the movie business really doing?

How do movie theaters operate with so many empty auditoriums? I wonder that. There have been a few occasions, usually weekday afternoons “in retirement,” when I go to see a movie “to review it” and it seems like the theater is giving me a private showing. The first time this happened was with a showing of “Kids in America” in the fall of 2005, at the AMC Courthouse in Arlington VA (and that sort of independent movie usually winds up at Landmark, but not always). That “satirical” film, with Gregory Smith as the lead, actually had something important to say about student (and teacher) free speech.

Other times, on a Friday or Saturday night, there will be a sellout and I don’t get in unless I buy it on the Internet. I didn’t get in to “The Simpsons” at the same theater on a Friday night 7 PM show at the same theater. (Yup, I look to much like “Mr. Burns”). As I recall, in 1999 I barely got into Paramount’s “Southpark” when I was in Minnesota. (I love these animated films that can actually say something about personal responsibility.) On a Friday night this winter at Landmark’s E Street downtown (across the street from J Edgar Hoover’s FBI Building in downtown DC) when I tried to see the film “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” about abortion in 80s Communist Romania, I found everything sold out. I settled for “Strange Wilderness” at the nearby Chinatown Regal (and that could have played at Landmark).

I don’t know how the current recession is affecting movie ticket sales, but it does seem slower as a whole. There are DVD’s, and most of all there is Netflix and Blockbuster, and some films come out very quickly on DVD; there is no reason to make the trip. (That varies: “American Gangster” showed up pretty quickly.) A major social calamity, like a pandemic forcing closings, could cripple the industry at some point in the future. Nevertheless, at many theaters I see "help wanted" signs (for minimum wage, mostly) even with slow attendance, and often there are lines for only one salesperson in a booth (even given Internet sales on Fandango, Movietone, etc.)

I’ve noticed that some local AMC theaters have eliminated the 9 PM show on school nights. One older theater, the Dupont 5, closed.

The most important measure that theaters have taken is to open their theaters to other events. The big sellers seem to be the Metropolitan Opera, which usually can sell out big Regal or NA auditoriums on Saturday afternoons at $20 a ticket, which quality high definition satellite projection and state of the art digital stereo. I wonder, why doesn’t the Met get together with a major “boutique” distributor (like Sony Pictures Classics) and film performances and offer high end showings at other times in select theaters. Sony or a similar company could do this with several opera companies, even from Europe. I don’t know if there are legal obstacles (the guilds) but it sounds like a no-brainer for an obvious money maker. People will come out to see Turandot.

There are other ideas. Block E Kerasotes Theaters in downtown Minneapolis has sometimes opened its auditoriums for actors’ readings of new screenplays (the screenwriting community and indie film community there is strong). Film festivals (GLBT, international, Jewish, African American, Muslim, environmental, shorts, documentary, 48 hour contests, school and amateur film) usually do well.

But there are a lot of practices of the major studios and theater chains that are irritating. One is loading up the shows with ten previews, many of them dumb. Another is paid ads. Another is ridiculous concession prices and slow lines, and coffee machines that don’t work. A better idea is to franchise real restaurants to offer real food (and even an enclosed sports bar) in leased space (National Amusements does that in Centerville, VA and the service and food is much better.) Some newer DVD’s have the annoying feature of forcing the renter to watch all the previews first, wasting time.

And, or course, there is the question of the quality of movies, and whether corporate beancounter encourage the making of formulaic pictures and sequels (in franchises) that bulk up the bottom line with cash cows, that may not remain reliable forever. The development of companies like Participant and 2929 to help big studios and indies alike make “socially conscious” films certainly helps. I think that the big suburban multiplexes, in high income areas (or near colleges), would do well to schedule more independent and foreign films.

I also think there are a number of important films that for no apparent reason do not have North American distribution. For example, an important film on global climate change, “The Planet” by Johan Soderberg has to be imported directly from Sweden (an expensive DVD by today’s exchange rates). Another such film is Gregor Snitzler’s “Die Wolke” (“The Cloud”), about a severe radiation accident at a nuclear power plant, from Germany. A plausible business plan could be developed to import and distribute such films.

Here is a story from “Bigpicture” that indicates that movie sales were flat in 2007.

Note: Breaking News: Blockbuster seems to have a deal with Circuit City. Watch the media reports to see what happens. This just came in after I put up the blog post.

Update: April 19:

The director of "Singing Revolution" (this blog, April 18) said that theaters determine "hold overs" on Monday mornings, and that weekend attendance is very important to studios and theater chains in making plans.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Amateur filmmakers could document intractable traffic bottlenecks

Maureen Bunyan and Jay Korff of WJLA (ABC) in Washington report that Fairfax County officials are interested in receiving “home movies” – that is, digital videos – of traffic jams in northern Virginia from motorists in order to justify funding road projects. So, amateur filmmakers might get to make a real difference.

It would sound as if some videos could simply be people speaking. Videos of actual traffic could not be taken by drivers while driving (just like texting with cell phones – worse) but could be done when stopped, or by passengers in cars. The idea presumes that motorists are equipped with camera-ready cell phones or, preferably, occasionally have camcorders of better quality with them. The videos would be collected an uploaded to a special YouTube website or region.

The WJLA story is here and has a two minute video itself to watch.

Imagine a documentary filmmaker could collect the videos and make them into a little “Red Envelope” like feature.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Body of War (review)

In late March, I reviewed “Fighting for Life” and now we have a second indie film about the personal cost of the war in Iraq, with the ironic and metaphorical title “Body of War,” (film website) directed and written by Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro, from Mobilus Media (distributed by the Fil Sales Company, 2007, 85 min; no rating but would be R because of very sensitive medical content).

The movie tells the story of Tomas Young, who joined the Army on Sept. 13, 2001. He expected to go to Afghanistan but wound up in Iraq in a unit sent there for the first time. Soon he was shot through the clavicle and spine, and paralyzed from chest down. The film, in fact, opens with his tedious preparations of himself for the day. There are many more such scenes, and the film is painful and disturbing to watch. (To add to that, he smokes.)

He returns to Kansas City and marries. The film focuses on the challenge that his injuries would pose to having an intimate life with a partner. The medical aspects of the intimacy problems are covered in graphic detail, including catheterization. In fact, the couple eventually separates. It’s true, that our cultural climate and expressive freedom can make permanent intimacy more difficult for many couples.

Tomas speaks to a congregation at a NYC church, battling a transit strike (and clogged streets) to be driven there. When speaks he has to lean over to rest, because of dizziness and difficulty in controlling body temperature. He takes a huge array of medications. The Army gave him about four months of rehabilitation, which was much less than injured veterans used to get. Tomas notes that President Bush opposes stem cell research that could benefit him. At the end of the film, he meets with Senator Robert Byrd (D-WVa) who was one of “The Number 23” Senators who voted against going to war in Iraq.

The movie intercuts quotes, especially from October, 2002, of President Bush and various members of Congress, including Democrats, warning of mushroom clouds unless Saddam is ousted.

There is comment about this movie on another blog, here.

Update: May 30

Bill Moyers Journal on PBS showed excerpts from the film and interview Phil Donahue about the film tonight. Thomas is reported now to be in a coma because of a blot clot in his lung.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Planet B-Boy: documentary about break dancing

Most of us have grown accustomed to overhearing hip-hop and rap (even when kids go to websites at school to play it), but I didn’t really realize it’s connection to break dancing, which is an athletic form of dancing somewhat resembling gymnastics (without apparatus) and tumbling, and requiring extreme upper body strength. Most dancers are male, have slender or light builds and extreme levels of both strength and aerobic fitness. Many dancers are solo, and in group dances physical contact is minimal. Break dancing would lend itself to becoming an Olympic event.

As mentioned in this documentary film, break dancing inspired the hit film from Paramount, “Flashdance,” in 1983, dir. Adrian Lyne, although I remember the film for its lilting theme song.

The term has sometimes been loosely used to describe some kinds of “dirty dancing” in discos. Sometimes, in the early hours of the Thursday night dance, a couple college-age guys would do almost real “break dances” on the stages at the Saloon in Minneapolis when I lived there.

Planet B-Boy
(2008, dis. Elephant Eye, prod. Mondo Paradiso, dir. Benson Lee, 85 min, NR but can be G, Germany/ South Korea) traces the progress of several break dance teams from around the world, to a competition in Germany. The most conspicuous team comes from South Korea. The film mentions mandatory military conscription required of all South Korean males, and actually has a scene at the DMZ. There is a scene with one South Korean soldier dancing for fun in uniform, and it looks odd that he has an earring while in uniform. The film shows some scenes of other towns in South Korea, an unusual opportunity for on-location viewing. The team travels to Germany and stays in a dorm, which is a bit like a budget traveler’s youth hostel, with multiple sleeping bags on the floor in just one barracks-like room. Another team comes from Japan, and the film mentions that the Japanese believe individuals should not draw undue attention to themselves, but break dancing provides a culturally acceptable exception to that rule of social courtesy. The American team is shown practicing in the Red Rock Canyon near Las Vegas (I drove through it in 1997 and recognize the unusual scenery.) The French team practices on the grounds near the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.

The film has some grainy digital video, and the narrator’s voice is a bit muffled, but the music itself has great sound. In one scene in S Korea, the dance music sounds like an Asian variation of the Pachabel Canon (used in "Ordinary People" 1980, Paramount, dir. Robert Redford, novel by Judith Guest), with a ground bass and continuous variations.

The closing credits show break dancing in some less commonly filmed locations, like Warsaw, Turkey, and Lake Geneva.